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Zenger Folkman blog

March 15, 2018

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Measuring Engagement Does Not Improve Itby Zenger Folkman

Many organizations that conduct employee engagement surveys believe that measuring engagement is the only necessary step to improving it as well. However, after a few years of administering the survey many organizations find their engagement scores stalling or declining rather than improving. In many ways, measuring engagement creates an expectation that it will be significantly improved. I believe there are two fundamental issues that hamper most improvement efforts.

Issue 1 – The Source of Poor Engagement

Zenger Folkman research has shown that the largest factor impacting engagement is the effectiveness of employees’ immediate supervisor. When describing this research to groups, I often ask participants if they have ever worked for a very poor leader in the past. I add the “in the past” qualification in case their immediate supervisor is in the audience. Most hands go up. I then ask, “What was it like working for a very poor leader?” The responses are very predictable, with comments like, “frustrating,” “I hated coming to work,” “I was discouraged,” and “I was miserable.”

If you work for a poor leader you will be an unengaged employee. The graph below shows results from over 11,000 work groups within the same organization. Employees rated both the effectiveness of their immediate manager and their level of engagement. As you can see, the group with the poorest rated managers coincided with very low levels of engagement. For every increase in the manager’s effectiveness we could measure an increase in the level of engagement.

 If the major source of low engagement is the environment in a work group, which is in turn influenced by the effectiveness of the work group manager, then for engagement to improve change needs to occur at the work group level. Many organizations try to oversimplify this process, believing that if they make a few broad global changes that engagement will increase. This approach misses the major source of the discontent.In another study with this same organization, we found that if a newly hired, highly engaged employee came into a group where engagement was low, within 18 months their engagement level matched the average engagement of the employees in that work group.

Issue 2 – How to Create Real Change in Engagement

Most organizations have a simplified view of how they can improve engagement and resolve issues that are raised in the survey. If something needs improvement, then just do it more! For example, if a work group got feedback that their communications needed improvement they might create a plan such as:

  • Schedule weekly communication meetings
  • Send emails to each employee weekly
  • Create a newsletter every month

If communications were terrible these actions would probably improve them. However, what if the work group was already doing those things to communicate? For many leaders the logic of what they would need to do to continue to improve would be to continue doing the same things, but more frequently. Their plan might be:

  • Schedule daily communication meetings
  • Send emails to each employee every day
  • Create a newsletter every week

More is not always better—sometimes it’s just more. To gain insight into what actions might improve communication, we researched thousands of 360-degree assessments from hundreds of different organizations. We identified groups where communications were rated highly, compared them to groups where communications were a problem, and then identified additional factors that influenced the rating of each employee on communications. We found a set of what we called enabling factors that impacted communications. By improving a few of these enabling dimensions we found that communications could be significantly improved. Some of the enabling dimensions associated with commutations are as follows:

  • Trust and competence of a leader. If a leader is trusted and respected, their communications are perceived to be more effective by their employees. Think about information you receive from a leader you do not trust. It does not matter how effectively this leader delivers the message. If there is a lack of trust, its effectiveness will be negatively impacted.
  • Create a more positive work environment. Communications are rated higher when the person works in a team with a positive work environment and people are highly engaged. In a negative work environment, it is easy for people to interpret communications in the wrong way.
  • Clear strategy and direction. In an organization where there is confusion about the strategy and direction, it’s difficult for any communication to be clear. Everyone is lost and lacks general direction. When the strategy and direction are clear to everyone, communications become clear.
  • Questionable integrity. Clear communications are often based on team members’ beliefs that promises and commitments will be met and expectations will be realized. When integrity is questioned, no amount of talking or messaging will make up the difference.
  • Ability to change. At the heart of many of our communications is that message that we need to go in a different direction or make a needed change. In an organization where employees lack confidence that change is possible, team members start to question communications describing needed changes. Building the confidence of employees that change efforts will be successful can make a significant difference in how people perceive communications.

Albert Einstein said that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Often the solution to many of our problems is not to do the same thing more frequently, but to understand what other factors influence the problem. Sometimes the best solution is to change some of the enabling factors.

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March 14, 2018

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Pardon Me, Your Pipeline is Leaking… and Three Reasons to Get It Fixedby Zenger Folkman


More than ever organizations need strong individuals in key leadership positions. Great leaders help their organization maximize productivity, achieve business goals, and prepare for the future. Yet it is interesting to note that even though women comprise more than half of the workforce, they remain underrepresented in top positions. Vik Malhotra, a senior partner at McKinsey and Co., said, “For women, the corporate talent pipeline is leaky and blocked.”

In this article we present three profound reasons why organizations need to repair their leaky talent pipelines and take advantage of this largely untapped and unrecognized resource for leadership—women.

1. Women leaders are highly effective.

In analyzing a dataset of over 60,000 leaders, we determined that objectively, women outperform men in 13 of the 16 most differentiating leadership competencies. In fact, they outperformed their male counterparts in overall effectiveness with every rater group, i.e. peers, direct reports, manager. The largest effectiveness ratings gap occurred in feedback from the leaders’ managers—on average, women outperformed men by almost five percent! The data is clear that ability is not the issue. Women can, and often do, perform well in leadership positions.

2. Women tend to seek ongoing opportunities for self-development.

Most women choose to continue to learn and develop as their careers progress, resulting in higher overall effectiveness. We found that early in their careers there is no significant difference between men and women’s overall leadership effectiveness. However, as their careers progressed, men’s average scores declined significantly more than women’s. The takeaway is not about men versus women, but rather the impact that ongoing development and continuous improvement can have on leaders’ overall effectiveness, and that women are more inclined to those activities.

3. Organizations benefit more from a mixed gender workplace.

Studies have shown that mixed-gender teams are more productive and creative. The difference between an all-male or all-female office to one that was evenly split was as much as a 41 percent increase in revenue. Greater diversity meant a broader spread of experience, a deeper collective knowledge, and a greater encouragement of new ideas, which helped the team perform more effectively. (Workplace diversity can help the bottom line, MIT 2014.)

Studies have also shown that having women in leadership positions created three times the probability that other women would be placed in fast-track opportunities. (Getting to Equal 2018, Accenture.) Diversity cultivated diversity, which generates organizational results.


The answer is quite clear—any leader can be extraordinary. While one gender is not inherently better than another, organizations will benefit greatly by putting emphasis on fixing leaky talent pipelines through identifying high-potential women and providing them with more opportunities to positively impact the organization in leadership roles.

January 15, 2018

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The Rewards Of Being An Ambidextrous Leaderby Zenger Folkman


I write with my left hand, play tennis and other sports with my right hand, and, like nearly all people, type on a keyboard with both hands. With a modest push from my parents, I’m convinced I could have learned to write with my right hand and play sports with my left. However, even without that, I’m reasonably ambidextrous—which has often come in handy.

Results Or Relationships; Which Is More Important?

There are great advantages in becoming an ambidextrous leader. In a study conducted by Zenger Folkman with 95,000 managers, we asked these leaders to indicate which competencies were most important for their subordinates’ success.  Their answer was “Driving for Results” (“Results”).  “Building Relationships” (“Relationships”) was rated number six.

When you include the views of peers and subordinates on this question, you get a different result. We studied data from 6,910 leaders who had received 360-degree feedback from an average of 13 respondents (managers, peers, direct reports, and others). We looked at the ratings from multiple raters on the leaders’ Results and Relationships abilities.

 We found the following:

Competency scoring higher             % in this category

Results higher than Relationships 49%
Relationships higher than Results 42%
Skilled at Both Results and Relationships 9%

Many leaders take the advice of their managers and focus their leadership efforts on driving for results. But are leaders who are more effective at delivering results better leaders than those who are highly competent in building positive relationships?  If we look at behavior, almost as many leaders were emphasizing building relationships as there were emphasizing results.

Payoffs From Being Ambidextrous

Both skills are critical for leaders, but which skill impacts the overall leadership effectiveness of a leader the most? After gathering the data from these three different groups, we found that leaders who were rated higher on Results than Relationships were, on average, at the 41st percentile in their overall leadership effectiveness. Those who were rated higher on Relationships than Results were at the 44thpercentile.  Those who were skilled at both were at the 82ndpercentile. These differences were all statistically significant.

Which Skills Get You Promoted?

Since managers were so strongly focused on Results, my colleague, Joe Folkman, and I started to wonder if that had a significant influence over who was identified as a “high potential” candidate for more senior positions.  We analyzed the same dataset, where we had “potential” ratings on just over 4,900 leaders. These “potential” ratings included input from other leaders in the organization, but were most strongly influenced by the individual’s manager.

The results of the analysis are in the graph below. Notice that 32% of the leaders who were rated higher on Results than Relationships were placed in the high potential group, while only 27% of those where Relationships were higher were considered high potentials.  While we might debate the importance of one or the other of these qualities, the most compelling point of the study is that 46% of those who did both well were put in the high potential group.

If a manager is good at one and not the other, becoming ambidextrous appears to pay off.The Interaction Effect

Why this happens contains some mystery. We know that correlation does not describe causation. That means we can speculate about why leaders who combine these abilities are perceived as being better performers with high potential, but cannot provide a definitive answer.

There is a strong circular effect between the positive relationships within a team and the results it produces.

  1. Positive relationships lead to members of a team putting forth extra effort.  That discretionary effort readily translates into better results.
  2. People who are generally happy in their work are more productive.  Positive relationships are a major contributing factor in being happy at work.
  3. People generally are much happier when they’re playing on a winning team.  Producing good results together is a strong force in building good relationships.
  4. Individuals who consistently contribute to a team’s success enjoy a higher sense of inclusion and respect than those who are not seen as positive contributors.

The Quest To Be Ambidextrous

Just as people select which hand they use the most, people sense which of these two qualities they tend to favor. The important takeaway is that you don’t need to be brilliant at both to achieve this positive impact. In our analysis, we put leaders into both groups when they were at or above the 75th percentile on both skills. Some people were at the 90th percentile on Results but only at the 75th percentile on Relationships, but still had that positive interaction effect. Rather than make the excuse, “I am not wired that way,” start telling yourself that you can do both skills well.  Pay special attention to the side that is your opportunity for growth. Set goals around making positive connections with others or completing tasks on time, and soon good habits will develop.

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Research Shows The Best Way To Motivate Othersby Zenger Folkman


A few years ago I decided to take my wife and teenage children on a European tour. I was of the opinion that I would not like the experience, but agreed to go because of pressure from my spouse and children. Typically my family prefers to go at their own pace and this tour was anything but flexible. However, soon after starting the tour I found that the tour director was excellent at setting clear parameters and expectations, such as, “The bus leaves from the hotel at 8:00 am sharp, if you are not on the bus good luck finding your own way to the next city!” Even though the tour guide was very directive, I found that it eliminated all the debates about where to go and when to leave. The typical family trip always put me in the middle of trying to decide what to do, but on the tour bus I could just sit back and follow the rules.

On another occasion, I was helping my son with a school report. We did a web-search for the highest mountain in Utah. A picture came up of Kings Peak, which rises 13,500 feet above sea level. As my son looked at the picture he said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to climb to the top of that mountain.”  Hearing my son’s enthusiasm, I thought, “This would be a great opportunity to make a memory and one that would never be forgotten.” I suggested the hike to his scout troop and every person decided to participate. Preparation for the hike was intense; this mountain is in a remote wilderness area and required a four-day, 45-mile round trip hike.  To prepare, two shorter hikes were organized. Finally, the time for the hike arrived. The hike was difficult; there were blisters, muscle aches, and exhaustion. The final climb to the peak was very steep over broken rocks, but that vision I had of my son and I sitting on the top of the peak propelled me up the mountain.

These two examples represent two very different ways leaders motivate others. Have you ever noticed what happens when you are assigned a project and have no deadline? For most people, there is a shift in action, intensity and purpose that comes with a date or time to complete a task. When your leader says to you, “I am going to hold you accountable for…” similar reactions occur.

Direction from others to drive results is one of the fundamental ways for leaders to get work accomplished. The feeling that comes from this direction is often clarity and a sense of responsibility, obligation, or duty when the direction is given.  When things are accomplished, there is a great sense of satisfaction. I call this approach “Push.”

A very different approach occurs when you are excited about a new idea for something that has never been done before, or when you get caught up in a cause that may have a dramatic and positive impact on you, your organization, or the world. You feel a great deal of energy and excitement, especially when you are surrounded by others who are enthusiastic.  When you are inspired your efforts are not because of obligation or accountability, but come from your personal desire to make a difference, or as Steve Jobs said, “To make a dent in the world.” I call this approach “Pull.”

My colleague Jack Zenger and I have been measuring these different approaches for some time. Push has been referred to as “drive for results,” and pull is equivalent to “inspires and motivates others.” What we find interesting in our analysis of nearly 90,000 leaders is when we compare the ratings of effectiveness on push versus pull, 78% of leaders are rated higher on their ability to push than pull.  In fact, looking at the ability to pull compared to  other competencies, it comes in as the lowest, least effective competency. What makes this story even more intriguing is that when we ask the colleagues doing the rating to indicate which competency is most important for a leader to be successful in their current job, they select “inspires and motivates others.”

The Shift

As we examine data from the past decade, we have started to see a shift. Twenty years ago, there were numerous examples of autocratic, results-driven organizations. There are fewer of those organizations today, as we see more organizations relying on pull rather than push. The results below compare leaders by different age groups. High refers to leaders who were in the top quartile on push or pull, while Low refers to leaders below the top quartile.

High Push, Low Pull High Pull, Low Push High Push and High Pull
Up to 25 years of age 8% 18% 31%
26 - 30 6% 15% 40%
31 - 35 9% 12% 30%
36 - 40 9% 10% 18%
41 - 45 10% 10% 14%
46 - 50 10% 9% 12%
51 - 55 10% 8% 11%
56 - 60 9% 8% 11%
61 and over 10% 8% 11%

Note from the table that the High Push, Low Pull column increases with age while the High Pull, Low Push column decreases. The High Push, High Pull column also decreases with age.  As we consider the work environment that our youngest generation of leaders desire, it is clear that they want more pull and less push.

Not Or, But And

Often as people consider this data and the trend toward pulling more, they conclude that they should stop pushing and start pulling. We disagree, and conducted a study to demonstrate why. One of the keys that every organization is working to improve is the engagement of team members. When a team has low levels of engagement, productivity is impacted. High engagement teams are much more effective and can have a significant impact on customer satisfaction.  A desired high bar for engagement is the top quartile.  In this study, we looked at 76,000 teams where we measured the effectiveness of the team leader on both push and pull dimensions, as rated by their direct reports. We also measured the engagement of those direct reports.  Once again, the label high in the graph below refers to leaders in the top quartile and low to those not in the top quartile.  Looking at the graph it’s clear to see that the highest level of engagement is achieved when leaders are high on both push and pull.


We believe that there is something very fundamental about this finding. Having an organization where people are on a mission and highly engaged is wonderful, but it still requires deadlines, commitments, and accountability. Leaders who learn how to pull can be very effective, but they will be even better if they also learn to push.

Rate Your Preference For Pushing Or Pulling

Are you interested in knowing your preference for pushing or pulling? We have developed a short self-assessment that evaluates how you prefer to motive others. The link for the assessment is as follows:

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A Meeting Everyone Likes? Ways To Achieve This Impossible Dreamby Zenger Folkman

Meetings are a favorite target of complaints across all levels of an organization. Why is it so hard to have meetings that enthuse every participant?

The obvious response is that we often want different things.  Some prefer a highly structured, disciplined process of making rapid-fire decisions on a wide range of topics; others seek a free-wheeling discussion of current challenges and opportunities.  Some see the meeting as a time when the team comes together to get reconnected and bond; others see it as the opportunity to lobby for their pet project.  The list of differences is endless. It’s no wonder that most meetings result in some participants grumbling about the process and the outcome.

In reality, meetings will always have multiple purposes, which means that not everyone will be equally happy with the outcome(s).  Much good can come from a well-planned and conducted meeting.  The challenge is to structure and conduct meetings that fulfill the needs of most of the attendees.

The average leader spends about 15% of every week in formal meetings.  How do we make the time we spend together be of maximum benefit to as many as possible? 

Effective Meetings Start With Good Agendas

  1. Take your time. The value of a meeting is greatly enhanced if time is spent on matters of importance. Ideally these are also topics that are of high interest to most group members. Time spent on carefully crafting an agenda will significantly elevate the value of the meeting. Fixed agendas, repeated exactly month after month, are a common culprit for ineffective meetings that waste everyone’s time.
  2. Consider the order. The most important agenda items should be placed first in case time runs short. To send the message that you care about the meeting’s content, circulate a draft agenda. Ask if all those items need to be discussed and what important issues may be missing.
  3. Clarify the purpose for agenda items. Is the objective merely to collect opinions, or does it call for a decision? Participants feel better when meetings produce a group of clear decisions.
  4. Suggest times for each topic. Creating aggressive time expectations not only establishes a cadence for the meeting and can assist in moving things ahead, but also signals the importance level of each topic.

Meetings Need An Active Driver.

 Once a strong agenda has been established, meetings need an active, involved person at the helm.

  1. Leaders set the pace. Leaders keep things on track by pulling the group back from sidetracks. They serve as the orchestra conductor, bringing in participants when their contribution is needed. Elon Musk reportedly invites group members who fail to participate to leave the meeting. While this could have unintended consequences, it does send the signal that participants are there to contribute and not to merely observe.
  2. Carefully manage the process. While every participant should be actively engaged in the content of the meeting, the leader is the one person who must also attend to its process. Consider: Are we on topic? Have we heard from all the people who possess important information?  Have all sides of the issue been heard?  The process the leader suggests should be driven by the objective. A decision on a complex question on which there is much data is extremely different than an open discussion on future industry trends.
  3. Utilize different methods for discussion. Leaders should not hesitate in getting ideas from other group members about methods that would be helpful in achieving the best outcome for the topic at hand. Various techniques, ranging from traditional brainstorming to asking each participant for the strategy they would use if they were a new competitor in your industry, can be helpful in opening the valve on new ideas.
  4. Set clear expectations for how decisions are made. For every subject at hand, it helps to be clear about how any decision will be made. Sometimes the leader is seeking opinions but will personally make the decision; sometimes the decision warrants a democratic vote.  It helps when people understand the ground rules.
  5. Infuse the meeting with energy. The leader’s emotions are highly contagious. Sharing your enthusiasm and passion can be uplifting for the entire group.

Improve The Process By Seeking Feedback

At the end of every meeting, ask the group what could be done to have future meetings be even more productive and efficient.  When the question is genuinely asked, participants can see the sincere desire to make every future meeting better than the last one.

A Word Of Caution

Most people believe that the best way to have a shorter meeting is to reduce involvement, based on the assumption that it takes more time. Leaders need to ensure involvement, and work to create a positive atmosphere where members feel they need to contribute. Part of that includes monitoring bad behavior of team members who make it difficult to have productive meetings. Leaders need to provide feedback to team members on behaviors that not only make meetings more successful, but behaviors that hurt meetings as well.


Consider the impact in your organization if every meeting were even just 15 minutes shorter and run more efficiently.  Having the ability to move meetings along quickly, controlling side conversations, taking issues that need more discussion off-line, and getting important decisions made will have a profound impact—it is the one of the bests gifts you can give this year!

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November 27, 2017

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Change Your Leaders To Change Your Cultureby Zenger Folkman


How would you describe the culture of your organization? Some might say, “It’s the smell of the place,” or, “It’s how things are done around here.” Research done on culture and organizational performance by Kotter and Heskett defines culture as “…gained knowledge, explanations, values, beliefs, communication and behaviors of large group of people, at the same time and same place.”  They concluded that differences in culture explains why one company succeeds where another fails within an industry. Consider Apple verses Blackberry, or Target verses Kmart. It wasn’t just the strategy that determined the success of the company, it was the culture.  The ultimate summary statement on the topic may have been Peter Drucker’s familiar saying, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”

However, culture can’t remain stagnant.  As the economy and each industry changes, company culture needs to be constantly adapting.  Unfortunately, companies often wait too long to adjust their culture. Doing so may mean walking away from a current business model, which can be risky—or it may just be that enacting change is viewed as requiring more effort than it’s worth.

In a survey of executives from 91 companies, with revenue greater than $1 billion, across more than 20 industries, Innosight asked: "What is your organization's biggest obstacle to transform your culture in response to market change and disruption?" Forty percent of survey respondents blamed "day-to-day decisions that essentially pay the bill, but undermine our stated strategy to change." It was by far the most prevalent response. The next most popular answer, at 24%, was "lack of a coherent vision for the future."

The consequence of failure to adapt is illustrated by the Fortune 500 list. When initiated in 1955, the average time on the Fortune 500 list was 75 years.  Today it is 14.5. The S & P 500, with a century’s worth of data, shows that in 1958 firms stayed on the list for an average of 61 years.  By 1990 that plummeted to 20 years, and it is forecast to shrink to 14 years by 2026.  If the current trajectory continues, half of the S & P firms will be replaced within 10 years.

What are the options for changing company culture?

Several possibilities exist to change your company culture: hire a new senior executive; embark on a focused campaign, such as increasing innovation; restructure the organization. Into that discussion Jack Welch offered one more possibility, “If you want to change the culture of an organization change the way it develops its leaders.”

It is worth analyzing how changing leadership development could improve company culture. Our research at Zenger Folkman has shown the strong influence leaders have on every measurable business outcome: employee engagement, innovation, intention to stay, productivity, sales, performance, and customer satisfaction. If you use the metaphor of these leaders as the rudder of a large ship moving through the water, Welch’s argument becomes clearer.  Even though the leadership team is a relatively small part of an organization, they have enormous influence on its direction and in short, they shape the culture. Reshaping the rudder of the ship has a profound impact on how fast it turns and the stability of its direction.

Leadership development initiatives

It is not hard to find critics of company-sponsored leadership development.  The cynic argues, “After all the time and money we spend on leadership development, why don’t we have better leaders?”  Some argue that leadership development is often detached from corporate strategy.  Others say that the methods employed don’t have the power to truly change behavior. Still others observe that there is insufficient follow-through and managerial involvement.  Much of this criticism is justified! However, many organizations are working hard to eliminate these barriers to success.

Conversely, there are examples of success.  Some organizations see elevated 360-degree feedback scores for their executives over time.  Many firms have rising employee engagement scores.  Business outcomes, such as customer satisfaction scores, are improving. Such outcomes can be directly tracked back to deliberate leadership development initiatives.

Three ways to improve leadership development

 We strongly believe that leadership development can be significantly improved through the following methods:

• Increasing the involvement of managers in the entire development process.

• Improving the way development is delivered.

• Incorporating development into daily work.

• Ensuring that leadership development is reinforced and supported by all HR processes, including recruitment, onboarding, performance management, and compensation.

• Including a critical mass (one-third to one-half of the target population of leaders).

• Identifying specific outcomes being sought, such as innovation, customer focus, and/or profitability.

From the many possibilities, we’ll highlight three.

1. Involve Managers in the development process. When analyzing data from a study of 61 leaders in the finance industry, we noticed a significant trend. The leaders were asked to describe their manager’s level of support for their development plan, and were then placed into three groups:  unsupportive managers, somewhat supportive managers, and very supportive managers. We then asked these leaders to describe the amount of progress they had made on their development plans, utilizing the question, “I feel that I have moved forward on improving the specific issues on my development plan.” Those that answered “Agree” or “Strongly Agree” to the question were designated as “Improvers.” We found that leaders with very supportive managers were more than twice as likely to feel they had improved than leaders with unsupportive managers.

2. Build development into work. Many assume that there is a major distinction—and to some degree a barrier—between daily work and development. Conscientious employees almost always put their work first, and invariably defer their personal development until they “find time” or “have a break.” The result has been that development nearly always plays second fiddle to job performance.Jobs are a perfect classroom in which to practice and learn how to be a better leader. Daily work and development need to be brought together in closer alignment—they are not competing activities! Development enables us to be better members of the organization and to improve overall performance.

3. Build leadership development concepts, principles and nomenclature into all HR Systems. The competencies selected to be the bedrock for developing your leaders should not be confined to the classroom, or be seen as one-time events. They should be imbedded in the selection, on-boarding, performance management, and compensation of all employees.

Any student of physics knows that a body at rest requires an energetic force to get it moving. Culture is no different. Getting it to move requires a focused effort that must begin with the organization’s leaders

This article originally appeared on Forbes


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It’s All About Me! What Happens When A Leader Takes All The Credit?by Zenger Folkman


You may know a leader who has a habit of taking credit for others’ accomplishments. Their motive typically is to make themselves look more effective, hardworking, or intelligent than others. The reality is that in most situations at work it’s difficult to accurately assign who deserves credit. Even in situations where a leader does all the work on a new initiative, often their direct reports had to take care of many other assignments to allow the leader the time to produce the new work.

But does taking credit for the work of others, as a strategy to get ahead, help or hinder the leader using that approach?  What is the impact of giving others all the credit?  To evaluate the impact, I gathered Zenger Folkman assessments from over 3,800 leaders and measured their effectiveness using 360-degree evaluations from managers, peers, direct reports, and others. Each person was assessed on their tendency to take credit from or give credit to others. Their effectiveness was also evaluated on 49 additional behaviors. An average of 10 raters evaluated each person’s effectiveness, with each leader receiving feedback from different perspectives.

The graph below demonstrates the impact of taking or giving others credit on a leader’s perceived overall effectiveness. Those leaders whose tendency was to take credit were rated as very ineffective leaders (13th percentile), while those who tried hard to give the credit to others were rated as some of the most effective leaders (85th percentile).  Overall leadership effectiveness measures the overall effectiveness of a leader on a broad set of behaviors.  This data demonstrates the dramatic negative effect of taking credit, along with the positive impact of giving credit to others.

Impact Of Taking Credit For Others Work

Very few people doubt the negative impact of taking credit for another person’s work.  The question then arises, are certain behaviors more affected by the taking—or giving—of credit? The graph below shows the effectiveness ratings for the top 10 behaviors most affected, for leaders who were rated the lowest in taking credit (bottom 10%) versus those who were rated the highest in giving credit (top 10%). As you read through the list of behaviors, the negative impact of taking credit for others’ work is clear.  However, the focus should be on the extraordinary value that comes from giving others all the credit. Many people underestimate the tremendous impact that comes from making an effort to give credit to others.

This graph clearly demonstrates the positive value created when all the credit is given to others. While those who assume that by taking credit for others’ work they are getting ahead at work may find that it creates a small temporary advantage for them, the negative impact it creates is like a tsunami wave—eventually it will come back and drown them.

Giving Others All The Credit Gives Back Tenfold

This data reflects the true impact of what happens when leaders work hard to give credit to others. The reality is, when a leader makes another person look good, it makes them look good too. The analysis on this data strongly suggests that by giving others credit a leader will be perceived in the following ways: more effective in their overall leadership effectiveness, fairer, committed to help others succeed, does what is best for the company, walks their talk, accepts responsibility, is trusted, lives their principles and core values, and values diversity.

If a leader sets a goal to recognize others for their accomplishments, and looks for opportunities to make others look good, their own effectives will improve. Your motto should be, “Don’t take credit for anything—give it all away.”

This article originally appeared on Forbes


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Why Is It So Difficult For Leaders To Give Positive Feedback?by Zenger Folkman

At a recent event I asked the audience, “Which is easier, giving positive feedback or negative?” The majority indicated that it was much easier to deliver positive feedback. One participant commented, “It’s not difficult to tell someone they are doing a good job but it’s much harder to say, ‘You really messed up!’”

Using a series of psychometrically valid items, my colleague Jack Zenger and I created a self-assessment that measured a leader’s preference for giving or avoiding the two basic kinds of feedback. Positive feedback is defined as praise and reinforcement.  Negative feedback is corrective and points out errors or missed opportunities.

For this study we gathered a global sample of 8,671 leaders. The self-assessment reveals that 56% of the leaders had a stronger preference for giving negative feedback, 31% preferred giving positive feedback, and 12 were equal in their preference. These results stimulated the question, “Why do leaders prefer giving negative feedback despite describing it as more difficult to give than positive feedback?”

To take this assessment click HERE.

Attitudes And Assumptions

We then asked if the best managers are those who deliver more praise and recognition than negative feedback. Only 33% of leaders who preferred giving negative feedback agreed with the statement, compared to 77% of those that preferred giving positive feedback:

Many leaders assume that the most effective leaders are those that give people the tough, difficult feedback, while those who lavish praise and recognition are weak and ineffective leaders. This is like the assumption at universities that the best professors are those that give very few “A” grades and fail a high percentage of students.  Are those professors really the best teachers? Are managers who give more negative feedback than positive really the best managers?

To test this assumption, we combined the results from our self-assessment of feedback preferences with 360-degree evaluations from managers, peers, direct reports, and others around their perceptions of a leader’s effectiveness.  The outcome measure we looked at was the overall leadership effectiveness rating, which combines results from competencies that predict leadership success.

Combining the databases gave us 588 leaders where we had results for both assessments.  Leaders preferring to give negative feedback had an overall effectiveness rating at the 35th percentile, while those preferring to give positive feedback were at the 47th percentile. We performed a t-test and determined the difference between the two groups was highly statistically significant (t value = 3.395, Sig. 0.001). It turns out the best leaders are those that prefer to give positive feedback.

Why are managers who give more negative feedback rated so poorly?

The data I have collected with Zenger Folkman indicates that when leaders prefer giving negative feedback, it conveys a lack of confidence in their colleagues and a primary focus on what employees might do wrong. These managers are perceived as quick to criticize and very slow to praise. This impacts relationships, trust, and integrity, and indicates that the manager does not have others’ best interest at heart.

Why do some people find it difficult to give positive feedback?

Some leaders are uncomfortable receiving positive feedback, which can result in them not giving positive feedback to others. Many leaders, when given the choice between positive and negative feedback, feel that the negative feedback will be more helpful. However, 71% of people say that they appreciate recognition and praise for a job well done. Many leaders fail to recognize the power of positive feedback and its benefit in motivating others. One concern is that if a leader provides too much positive feedback, the negative feedback will be ignored when delivered. However, our research shows that leaders who have a strong preference for giving positive feedback are rated significantly higher on their ability to “Provide honest feedback in a helpful way.”

I’m not suggesting that managers avoid giving negative feedback, but when there is more positive feedback than negative, direct reports believe that a manager is trying to help them and they are more likely to accept and appreciate negative feedback. In fact, 93% of 8,542 respondents agree that “Negative feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.

Factors that increase the amount of positive feedback

Looking at Zenger Folkman’s datasets, I discovered four behaviors that enabled leaders to provide more positive feedback.  Improvement on a few of these behaviors will help increase your ability to provide positive feedback.

1. Leaders who are interested in their own development tend to give more positive feedback to others. They have an improve mentality where they believe that because they can improve, others can as well. Leaders who are concerned about their own development tend to ask for feedback and are always open to ideas and suggestions.

2. Consideration for Others. There is a strong correlation between leaders who have a high concern for others and their effectiveness at giving positive feedback. When a leader is focused on negative feedback they are more likely to judge and evaluate others. Leaders who show consideration for others show they want the best for them.

3. Desire to Develop Others. Those who give more positive feedback believe that talent and skills are dynamic and are confident that people can grow and learn new skills. They look for and support development activities for others.

4. Strong Desire to Pull more than Push. Most leaders learn first about push motivation: to set deadlines, to help others be accountable, and to push others to accomplish difficult goals. Those who provide more positive feedback also know how to pull. They get others excited about goals and objectives, and inspire others to do more. They recognize others regularly, reward high performance, and are generous with their praise.

Bottom Line

Our data provides compelling evidence that when leaders give more positive feedback than negative, they are perceived as more effective leaders. If you think you have developed a habit of focusing on what people do wrong rather than what they do right, try keeping track. Continue to identify problems and illuminate weaknesses, but provide more honest praise when things go well, recognize effort, and thank others for contributions. If you can make this change, you will notice a positive difference in yourself and in others.

This article originally appeared on Forbes


October 15, 2017

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Leaders Believe They Value Diversity, But Direct Reports Don’t Agreeby Zenger Folkman

How important is a leader’s commitment to creating a culture of inclusion?  How important is it that leader’s embrace and deliberately act to create a diverse organization?

In a recent Harvard Business Review article my colleague Joe Folkman and I shared our analysis of assessments from over 1.5 million raters describing 122,000 leaders from data collected over the last decade.  We were searching for new competencies that may have become more relevant and critical for leaders today than they had been in the past.  One of the most noteworthy competencies to emerge was the ability to value diversity and practice inclusive behavior.

Leaders were assessed on this capability through 360-degree feedback, collected from their manager, peers, direct reports and others with whom they worked.  Two of the items used to evaluate the effectiveness of leaders on this competency were:

• “Takes initiative to support and include people of different backgrounds and perspectives.”

• “Actively builds a climate of trust, appreciation and openness to differences in thoughts, styles and backgrounds.”

Note that the items evaluate a leader’s ability to create an inclusive environment.  The items take a broader view of diversity than merely  gender or race; and asked about diversity in background, perspectives, thoughts and styles.

(While our general conclusions come from our global database describing this competency, we  will  highlight results from one large global company.  The results shown below are based on data regarding over 4,000 leaders from that organization.)

Impact Of Valuing Diversity

We first sought to answer the question regarding the value and importance of this competency.  We can recall the time in years past when many saw this as just a “nice to have capability.” Is this now a critical competency that will impact the effectiveness and future success of a leader?  To answer that question objectively, we turned to the data.

In our first analysis, we conducted a “differentiation analysis” examining which behaviors would most effectively separate the best from the worst leaders.  We found that the two “diversity and inclusion” items were among the top 30 items.

We then analyzed the correlation between how a leader was rated on the diversity competency and their rating of their overall leadership effectiveness. The graph below shows the results.  Note that leaders who were rated very poorly on valuing diversity and inclusion were only rated at the 15th percentile on their overall leadership effectiveness.  Those who were rated in the top 10% on those two items were on average rated at the 79th percentile. This confirmed the strong correlation between a leader’s perceived overall effectiveness and their perceived inclusive behavior and actions that signaled that they valued diversity.

Correlation Between Valuing Diversity/Practicing Inclusion With Overall Leadership Effectiveness

It appears that displaying inclusive behavior and being perceived as valuing diversity is a key factor in elevating a leader’s overall perceived effectiveness.

Differences By Management Level, Gender And Ethnicity

Since the impact of valuing diversity and practicing inclusion was so significant, we were interested in conducting a demographic analysis of the data to understand which groups were more effective in practicing inclusion and valuing diversity.  We had demographic data on 1,628 of the leaders.  (It should be noted that this organization had an excellent track record around their practice of valuing diversity and practicing inclusion.)

In the demographic analysis, we compared the executive population of the more senior leaders to managers and supervisors.  We further analyzed the data by gender.  Not surprisingly, we found  that the executives and senior leader were rated significantly higher on their ability to value diversity and practice inclusion than were the middle managers and supervisors.

There were also absolute differences between males and females, but those differences were not statistically significant.  Repeatedly we have seen how prejudicial behavior by a senior executive can have an extremely negative impact on the culture of an organization.  Ensuring that senior leaders are perceived as being effective at valuing diversity and inclusion is a key factor today in organizational success.V

In this third analysis, we analyzed ratings of practicing inclusion by management level and by ethnicity.  We do not believe that these results are representative of any global or national trends but the analysis did bring out three especially important points.

1. Because a leadership team is itself diverse does not necessarily mean that they will be effective at valuing diversity and practicing inclusion. Valuing diversity is an attitude and mindset.  Practicing inclusion involves a set of behaviors that can be developed in leaders.  They are not automatically inherited simply because their current group is diverse.One of the authors was coaching a leader who was responsible for building the Japanese division of a global company and making it extremely successful.  After looking at his rating on valuing diversity the author thought, “There must be some mistake in the data,” because of the very low ratings.  Inquiring if the leader thought that this was an error the leader responded by say, “Oh no, it’s perfectly accurate. I have spent the last 10 years forcing our organization to conform to the Japanese culture and approach. I have been very inflexible.”

2. Self-perceptions in this arena are not highly accurate. Many leaders, especially the less effective ones, assume they are better at valuing diversity and practicing inclusion than they truly are. Conversely, those who are among the most effective leaders rate themselves as being less effective than others rate them.  It could be argued that individual leaders may know best about what’s in their heart, but others are in a far better position to objectively evaluate whether and how they practice inclusion in their day-to-day work.

3. Ideally senior leaders serve as role models and lead the way. If their behavior fails to convey valuing diversity and advocating inclusion then their direct reports will often emulate their leader. They absorb their attitudes and mimic their behavior.

Valuing Diversity And Practicing Inclusion Are Critical

The most progressive organizations throughout the world recognize the importance of this competency in their leaders.  Global organizations know this is a strategic advantage. Leaders who are less ineffective at this create significant problems that will haunt them and their organizations.   Fortunately, awareness and honest feedback bring change.  Intolerance and prejudice are not set in concrete, but can be modified.  Inclusive behavior along with valuing diversity can be developed.

This article originally appeared on Forbes


October 6, 2017

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Leaders Aren’t Great at Judging How Inclusive They Areby Zenger Folkman

Many organizations today are making concerted efforts to become not only more demographically diverse but also more inclusive and welcoming of difference. The latter is much harder to measure than the former. It’s not that hard to count the percentage of women or people of color in your organization, but how can you tell if leaders in your organization are genuinely welcoming? Do leaders know if they are as welcoming as they think they are?

To explore this question, we analyzed one large organization with an excellent track record of hiring and promoting diverse candidates and a reputation for inclusion. This organization had hired us to administer 360-degree feedback assessments for roughly 4,000 leaders, and agreed to let us use that data for this analysis.

Leaders Aren’t Great Judges of Their Own Inclusiveness

We focused on two items that have stood out to us in over 10 years of administering 360-degree assessments with over 1.5 million raters describing 122,000 leaders:

  • “Takes initiative to support and include people of different backgrounds and perspectives”
  • “Actively builds a climate of trust, appreciation, and openness to differences in thoughts, styles and backgrounds”

When we compared leaders’ self-ratings with their ratings by bosses, peers, and subordinates, what we found was that many leaders assume they are better at valuing diversity than they actually are.

The graph below shows the senior leaders’ self-ratings and their ratings by direct reports.

What is clear in this graph is that leaders who are the worst at valuing diversity are more likely to overrate their effectiveness, and leaders who are the most effective tend to underrate their effectiveness. The implications of this data are: leaders are not good judges of their own effectiveness on valuing diversity; and those leaders who are poorest fail to see the problem, while those who are the best don’t realize their skill and capability.

This phenomenon is not limited to inclusiveness — the Dunning-Kruger effect, for example, explains that unskilled people are particularly prone to thinking they are more skilled than they are. Conversely, our research has found that many of the most skilled leaders are too humble and modest in assessing their strengths.

Nonetheless, we find this result particularly disturbing when we see it in the context of inclusivity. While a person’s effectiveness with any skill always needs to be based on the evaluations of others, rather than self-perception, it seems especially true in this case. Inclusivity is particularly in the eye of the beholder. You might intend to be inclusive, and even think you are inclusive, but your impact on others might be very different.

Inclusiveness and Effectiveness Track Together

Some leaders might be tempted to brush aside inclusivity as “political correctness” or “touchy-feely stuff.” But those leaders should pay particular attention to our next finding: a strong correlation between perceptions of inclusivity and overall leadership effectiveness.

Leaders who were rated very poorly on valuing diversity and inclusion were rated in only the 15th percentile for their overall leadership effectiveness, while those who were rated in the top 10% of those two items were rated in the 79th percentile.

This result does not surprise us. Repeatedly, we have seen how prejudicial behavior by a senior executive can have an extremely negative impact on the culture of an organization. Leaders who are ineffective at this create significant problems that will haunt them.

Senior Leaders Are More Inclusive

Using demographic data on 1,628 of the leaders, we conducted an analysis to see whether senior leaders or junior managers are seen as more inclusive.

When we compared the executive population of the more senior leaders with middle managers and junior supervisors, we found that the executives and senior leaders were rated significantly higher on their ability to value diversity and practice inclusion.

This might come as a surprise to some — senior executives are often assumed to be older, stodgier, and less innovative than younger, more junior leaders — but it did not surprise us. In many of our other studies, we have found that senior executives have accumulated more leadership and managerial skill than junior managers. Since inclusivity is closely associated with overall effectiveness in our results, it does not surprise us to learn that the more experienced, higher-ranking leaders are more competent on both. Moreover, it’s worth remembering that this is an organization that explicitly values diversity and inclusion, so it’s not surprising that it would promote people who are skilled at fostering both.

When we looked at senior leaders and lower-level managers by gender, we found that women were slightly more inclusive than men, but these differences were not statistically significant.

Valuing diversity is an attitude and mindset. Practicing inclusion involves a set of behaviors that can be developed in leaders. Our research has shown that self-perceptions in this arena are not highly accurate. While it could be argued that individual leaders may best know what’s in their hearts, others are in a far better position to objectively evaluate whether and how they practice inclusion in their day-to-day work.


This article was originally published on Harvard Business Review.


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